Islamic, rather than “Arab”, is the term often used to categorize the art of the Middle East. This is because although the art forms have borrowed from the societies which the Arabs came in contact with, it was shaped by the strictures of the Islamic faith and the Arab oral tradition. The Qur’an was the holy book of Islam. It set rules which were the standard for all Muslim behavior. Decorated Arabic writing became a major Islamic art form. The Islamic faith forbade the portrayal of human or animal images in mosques or in the Qur’an, giving rise to the development of complex geometric patterns and intricate floral or plant designs, which became trademarks of Islamic art.11
There are four basic elements of Islamic decorative art: geometric patterns, calligraphy, highly stylized floral or plant designs, and figural art.
It is said that Islamic artists use geometric patterns to represent their belief in logic and order. Sophisticated designs were created using simple tools such as a ruler and a compass. The circle is the most common shape used in Islamic designs and provides the foundation for complex patterns. The designs radiate from a central point and are symmetrical. Leaf and floral motifs are developed inside the basic circle patterns. Often the designs are in repeated patterns.12 Geometrical designs are two-dimensional and are therefore thought of as surface decorations. These designs are consistently found in the designs of fabrics, metalwork, ceramics, leatherwork, etc. of the Middle East.
Floral or Plant Motif
Two favorite designs utilizing the floral or plant motifs, are the arabesque and palmette. Arabesques are graceful, intertwining plants, perhaps floral, usually developed within a geometric shape, such as the circle. The design of abstract leaves or flowers radiates out, twists in and then out again to fill the space and create a complex design. The Palmettes are floral or plant forms that face upward and outward. The lotus and the peony are often found in the palmette patterns.13 These flowers would indicate inspiration from the flowers often pictured in art of the Far East or India. Also the tulip is used, indicating Turkish origins, as the tulip was a very special flower of that region. Themes, such as these flowers, although of another origin, were reconfigured to the distinctive Islamic style of artistic expression.
These designs were used of surfaces and used to transform objects of daily use-rugs, clothes, lamps, incense burners, plates, into rich and exciting works of art.14
Calligraphy and Figural Art
These two elements of Islamic decorative art will be discussed in more detail, with accompanying lesson plans. Calligraphy, the art of beautiful writing, arose from the strong oral tradition of the Arabic language and the desire to write the Qur’an in the most beautiful and reverent style. The most renowned figural art is to be found in the miniature paintings originating in Persia.